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1. Happy 2004

No one has a right to consume happiness without producing it.

I'm not going to wish you a happy new year. There's very little that's new about it. The United States aided by Britain continue to wage war on terrorism and by doing so enshrine terrorism as a holy cause. Talk of WMD and rogue states is still taken seriously in the mainstream media but only applied selectively. It's never linked with real events, real arsenals and actual arms expenditure.

Meanwhile it remains a truism that regardless of which economy is doing well the people are doing badly. Trade talks in Cancún, Mexico collapsed this September as the United States aligned itself with the European Union in refusing to end farm tariffs or as the New York Times editorial of December 30 put it: “their economic weapons of mass destruction”. And so the developed world continues to shovel subsidies of $1 billion a day to its farmers, or perhaps more accurately, corporations engaging in farming.

On top of this the Kyoto Accord established in 1997 and intended to cut carbon dioxide emissions is still in doubt. Ratification hangs on Russia and the Russians are trying to wring as many concessions as they can before signing. Already agreement has been reached that allows genetically engineered trees to be grown and act as carbon sinks which in turn will reduce the level of cuts countries will have to make. This, despite the fact that only 1% of emissions can be stored in forest carbon sinks. Kyoto aims to have emissions by developed countries reduced to 5.2% below 1990 levels which doesn't seem much but according to Reuters is seen by the US as a “regulatory straitjacket that will harm industry and economic growth”. The US is the World's largest polluter (responsible for 25% of total emissions) and refuses to sign.

It may be hard to solve the problems of the World but it isn't difficult to see that the actions and attitude of the United States Administration is dangerous. The mayors of London and Hiroshima think so. Ken Livingstone, Mayor of London has described President Bush as the “greatest threat to life on this planet that we've most probably ever seen". Tadatoshi Akiba, Mayor of Hiroshima has issued a call to action:

“The time has come to impose economic sanctions on any nation that insists on maintaining nuclear weapons. The time has come to use demonstrations, marches, strikes, boycotts, and every nonviolent means at our disposal to oppose the destruction of millions of our brothers and sisters, the destruction of our habitat and the extermination of our species. The time has come to fight, nonviolently, for our lives."

[For the full text of his speech click here]

So if you are going to make a resolution for 2004 consider taking economic action and if you feel like signing a pledge to help strengthen your resolve there's one here.

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2. Correspondence

Be of good cheer. Do not think of today's failures, but of the success that may come tomorrow. You have set yourselves a difficult task, but you will succeed if you persevere; and you will find joy in overcoming obstacles. Remember, no effort that we make to attain something beautiful is ever lost.

The last issue prompted a very interesting email. Here it is together with my response:

Dear Chris,

As always you touch on many points in your newsletters and I have some difficulty getting my head around some of your ideas, of course, you have been thinking about them for weeks or months before putting them down on paper.

I was thinking about the idea of discipline after my junior high school class yesterday evening. I felt that we got very little work done because there was so much Japanese spoken in the classroom. We had five students yesterday and four of them chattered incessantly, but the fifth was quiet and withdrawn, she may be the nail that you spoke about, yet if all the students had been quieter and not spoken Japanese, she wouldn't have been withdrawn and we would have all learnt more English during the lesson.

I believe that at an early age there are more situations that require a child to have that "external authority" but as the child matures and gains in wisdom and experience, then there are fewer and fewer situations in which an external authority is necessary, but there seems to be a gap in time between release from an external authority and the required level of "self-discipline". Perhaps, it is because of a lack of freedom in school life or in home life, that these children lack self-discipline. There is no easy way out of the situation, the children come into the relative freedom of my classroom and abuse the freedom and the easiest way for me to control the situation would be for me to abuse my authority. Sometimes it's a Catch-22 situation. I'm not sure if the girl who was "quiet and withdrawn" is the nail that is sticking up, or the nail that sits in place. I suspect that she was the one showing self-discipline.

Just some thoughts I had, while skimming through your e-mail.

Regards,
David Lisgo

Dear David,

Thank you for thoughts, they in turn are thought provoking. I'd like to include your letter in my next newsletter if I may. I agree that we are often in a catch-22 situation. I think the idea of freedom and licence is very important. I agree that you surely more English would have been learnt if the students hadn't been chatting in Japanese. In away they were abusing you and perhaps the quiet girl. You were all there to learn English yet their behaviour was disrupting that goal. Assuming that they have chosen to do English with you their behaviour really makes no sense. Of course, if they are their under duress then their behaviour is perfectly understandable. So I really do think that free choice is important. But with choice comes responsibility. At Summerhill students are free to attend lessons or not but if they attended a lesson and then disrupted it the other students would probably call them up before the general meeting. A friend of mine has a school in Greece and there any student or the teacher can call a mini meeting within the class. For example if a student thinks the activity is boring they can stop the class and share their opinion with others. The class will then come to a consensus and decide what to do which might be some new activity or the original activity or perhaps the original activity modified in someway. The point is that both teachers and students have the freedom and accordingly the responsibility to take action in a lesson.

No-one need be passive.

I'm not sure I agree that younger children require "external authority".

Obviously adults need to be aware and protect very small children from activity that is dangerous. And of course adults have vastly more experience and can foresee the consequences of actions that children cannot. But I think it's important for children to discover the relationship between their actions and the consequences. That is practising freedom. I think that self discipline comes through experiencing freedom.

I agree that teachers in the private sector often have a problem. If we give 'free choice' then either the children have no idea what to do with it or go berserk. At Summerhill children often go through a stage of wildness when first given autonomy. This is acceptable within a community like Summerhill which can cope with such behaviour and has the resources and time to deal with it, but for the teacher in a private school meeting students just once a week the situation is very different. I'm still working on how to give children freedom but prevent a class from becoming destroyed.

As for getting your head around some of my ideas - I have the same problem!

Sometimes what I really want to say slips away or turns out differently. Yet only by putting it down on paper and reading people's reactions can I get closer to what is on the edge of my perception.

Thanks again, best wishes,
Chris

 

3. Part Two

Walking with a friend in the dark is better than walking alone in the light.

I also read your newsletter over lunch. Honestly speaking, it made me want to go home. A little bit depressing in the sense of nothing we do making a difference. What is wrong with the current structure? doesn't inspire hope or optimism or faith in my ability to make changes, although connecting with other people who feel the same way, or feeling that more and more people are becoming aware does. I hope part two will list some of the things that you are doing, or ideas for what we could be doing to make even some small changes.

Alison Miyake

Thinking about what Alison wrote led me to the Website Zen stories to Tell Your Neighbors. There are some interesting stories at this site and all of them have the virtue of being short. One Story is called Two Words. Here's a link. You might like to read the story before continuing.

The story is about a strict monastery where monks are only allowed to speak two words every 10 years. What struck me when reading the story is that the head monk is not restricted by the rule. I find this inconsistent.

I'm very wary of remarks about human nature. Often they are made to deny or ridicule ideas or limit thinking to support the existence of affairs as they are. As an experiment next time you hear someone talking about human nature you can check and see what can of action those words are supporting or suppressing. My guess is the result will be restrictive.

But these remarks aside I do think that inconstancy is pretty integral to human nature. It wouldn't surprise me if it were a survival trait. But I think if there were just one thing we could do to improve things it would be to increase consistency. I'm not thinking on a personal level but at a structural one. I think that allowing institutional inconsistency is dangerous.

So if the United States wants other countries to submit to weapons inspections we should demand the same compliance from the United States. If the European Union wants developing countries to remove tariffs it should do the same. If nations are going to forgive Iraq debt (as the US would like) then perhaps all debt for poor countries should be forgiven.

These examples are large and abstract and the reason I'm mentioning is not because we can do anything individually about them but because we can use these issues and issues like them to train our minds. We can learn to demand consistency from government and from other institutions and we can spread this learning. The more more people demand institutional consistency the harder it will be for those with power to confuse us. The harder it will be for them to act and the harder it will be for them to get what they want.

Knowing what you want is important.

It's not enough to be against something. It's important to develop vision and create alternatives. I think one of the downfalls of progressive movements is that they spend too much energy on resistance and not enough on renaissance. To use the prison analogy a lot of time is spent fighting the prison warden and his guards and not enough on dismantling the prison. I think a better balance is possible.

There are many great ideas. History is full of them. We need to be more consistent in applying them. For example, democracy is a much-touted idea. Yet what is it really and how much does it permeate through our daily lives? And if it is such a good idea why is it that most workplaces are undemocratic? Why are they so hierarchical? And why are most educational institutions hierarchical. Why aren't schools and classrooms democratic?

So why not spend some time identifying Institutional Inconsistency and then do what you can to reduce it. A New Year's Revolution perhaps?

The welfare of each is bound up in the welfare of all.

4. What's New

Articles:

Get Out Of Jail Free – A handout by David Hough. With two PDF files to download

Think Tank Piece (ELT News) Testing – Do You Do Tests? I was surprised by the amount of response this provoked on the ETJ General list.

Think Tank Piece (ELT News) Poetry – Surely You See that?

Games:

Vampire Castle – a chase and escape board game for reviewing vocabulary

Stories:

The Cage – a story about monkeys.

Worksheets:

Resolutions – A worksheet to help student make resolutions to learn more English.

Part Two and a Half

Knowledge is happiness, because to have knowledge -- broad, deep knowledge -- is to know true ends from false, and lofty things from low.

As a wrote to David Lisgo what I want to say sometimes slips away. Sometimes I don't even know it's gone. Keeping and sharing awareness is accordingly important. Also examining one's own actions for inconsistency and when necessary sharing the findings.

I mentioned democracy above but how much democracy can I say exists in my own classroom. Do I even know what democracy is? If a teacher gives choices to students is that really democracy or just an element of it? I'll have more to say about that another time because what's in my head right now are questions about violence and non-violence.

I like to think I'm against violence. But if I'm against violence why do I sometimes lose my temper? Why do I get angry with the news I see on television? Why do I sometimes use violent language? Even my writing which is usually considered can be considered violent (this was at least one person's feeling about some of my prose in Do You Do Tests?).

Perhaps violence is more pervasive than generally imagined. Arun Gandhi founder and president, of the M. K. Gandhi Institute for Nonviolence has some interesting comments about this. They are worth quoting at length:

One of the many things I learned from grandfather is to understand the depth and breadth of nonviolence, and to acknowledge that we are all violent and that we need to bring about a qualitative change in our attitudes. We often don't acknowledge our violence because we are ignorant about it. We assume we are not violent because our vision of violence is one of fighting, killing, beating, and wars - the type of things that average individuals don't do.

To bring this home to me, grandfather made me draw a family tree of violence using the same principles as are used for a genealogical tree. His argument was that I would have a better appreciation of nonviolence if I understood and acknowledged the violence that exists in the world. He assisted me every evening to analyze the day's happenings - everything that I experienced, read about or saw or did to others - and put them down on the tree either under "physical" (if it was violence where physical force was used) or under "passive" (if it was the type of violence where hurt was more emotional).

Within a few months I covered one wall in my room with acts of "passive" violence that grandfather described as being more insidious than "physical" violence. He then explained that passive violence ultimately generated anger in the victim who, as an individual or as a member of a collective, responded violently. In other words it is passive violence that fuels the fire of physical violence. It is because we don't understand or appreciate this concept that all our efforts to work for peace have either not fructified, or the peace that we achieved was only temporary. How can we extinguish a fire if we don't first cut off the fuel that ignites the inferno?

Preface to Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life by Marshall Rosenburg. Here's a link if you would like to read more.

The reason I'm thinking about nonviolence at the moment is because one of my classes is violent. By mutual agreement and enjoyment a class of two boys is engaging in killing. Killing I helped to set up. I'm talking about a fantasy role-playing game.

Recently I began giving questionnaires to some of my classes of elementary aged children. I wanted them to choose how to learn English and what topics to learn with. One class of two boys wanted to focus on reading and writing English with fantasy as a topic. I however wanted them to include speaking and listening as well. So we hit upon a plan of playing a fantasy role-playing game. Each of them has a character. Each character has certain skills and we use dice to determine what happens in a given situation. Dice are obtained by writing words. The rules are still in development but we seem to have a ‘hack and slash' game. They go adventuring, look for treasure, look for monsters and kill them. Typical fantasy role-playing.

But isn't this inconsistent with my beliefs about peace? Why did I set this up? Why did I make this game?

I have various thoughts. I wanted to try role-playing with the boys because I wanted to get them to focus more on meaning. I wanted to get them to try doing something in English rather than studying it. That was my assessment of what would help their English to improve. Fantasy did capture their emotional interest.

Violence is where they are. In the past I've mentioned the NLP idea of Pacing and Leading. In English lessons this means going where the students are first before attempting to go somewhere else.

My plan if we keep with the fantasy role-playing game is to introduce situations which aren't so black and white as good people vs evil monsters and see how they respond. I'll let you know.

In the back of my mind there are some thoughts about the structure of our belief patterns and how they are reflected in the structure of our institutions. I guess they will wait for Part Three. I hope you won't have to wait two months for it. We'll have to wait and see.

Administrivia

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The highest result of education is tolerance.

(Quotes this issue by Helen Keller)

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